Too cute to kill?

Some friends of ours have a house in France and last year were bemoaning the fact that edible dormice (glis glis) had taken up residence.  To someone who rarely sets foot outside of the UK, the thought of little, shy dormice being considered a pest seemed a little strange to me.  However, it seems that these are not the small brown fellows much beloved of Autumnwatch (native hazel dormice), but bigger, greyer beasties.

So, why a blog post about these creatures?  It is inspired by an article in the excellent, if somewhat scholarly, British Wildlife Magazine.  What I didn’t realise was that there is a colony (or maybe more) of the creatures in Tring (Hertfordshire).  They are also known as the fat dormouse – both names arising from the fact that they were kept as food by the Romans and were even carried in jars by Roman soldiers when on marches.

So, how did they get here?  Well it certainly wasn’t under their own steam as studies on the Tring population have shown that they have really not extended their range very far at all.  As in most cases it was human intervention that has resulted in the UK colonies.  In this case, Lord Rothschild and an ‘accidental’ release at the beginning of the twentieth century.

So, the lowdown on edible dormice:

  • They are quite a lot bigger than their native relatives and live for about seven years
  • Whereas UK natives are brown, edible dormice are grey and about the size of a small squirrel
  • They are nocturnal
  • They hibernate underground from about the end of October to May
  • They nest in holes in trees and are thought to form creches with the offspring of more than one female found in some nests
  • The young aren’t born until July / August which gives them only two or three months to gain enough weight to hibernate
  • Their favourite food is Beech mast – in years where it is likely that there will be a poor crop of Beech mast the dormice don’t breed
  • It is thought that when there is a poor yield of Beech mast then the dormice are more likely to be found in nearby houses

So, why are they considered a pest?  They do apparently strip bark from trees, however, the main problem with them seems to be the fact that they are often found in houses where they chew through wires and eat food stores.  They are also doing rather well despite their limited range (mainly within 25 miles of Tring) – Natural England estimate that there are at least 10,000 of the animals in the UK.

They were recently listed as one of the top 10 problem invaders alongside mink and grey squirrels.  There are certain methods that can legally be used for ‘dealing’ with these large eyed furry creatures, but it is also an offence to release these animals into the wild now, which is exactly what is thought to be behind their appearance outside of Tring.  People had a problem with them, but couldn’t bring themselves to kill them, so took them far, far away and released them.

But, could you resist those big black eyes and grey coat – perhaps there are things that are too cute to kill?  Still, that argument has never worked for seal pups though, has it?

Bitterns – booming good news.

When I was younger I heard various references on the television to booming bitterns (I watched quite a few nature programmes as a child). I have never seen or heard a bittern, but, as I don’t live near a reed bed, I am not surprised or too disappointed (although I have seen reports of one at Brandon Marsh, so maybe one day…).

I have always thought of them as secretive and elusive, but never as incredibly rare in the UK, which is what I discovered when reading an article in the June 2009 issue of British Wildlife. The RSPB website estimates that there are 75 breeding (booming) males, but the magazine article puts the number of nest sites as closer to 40. So, why the interest? There are two reasons.

Along with many other species of animals and birds, bitterns used to be quite common, and, yes, you’ve guessed, they used to be regulars at the dinner table. However, bittern pies and the decline in suitable habitat (reedbeds) led to their extinction, although they resettled in the 1950s and have been making a slow and steady comeback.

The second reason is linked to climate change. By far the majority of the current breeding population is in Suffolk – that LOW lying part of the country. There is a fear that the increased possibility of storm surges in this part of the country poses a major threat to the reed beds that are frequented by bitterns. (Did you know that the Thames barrier, when first built in the 1980s was operated approximately once a year, more recently it is in use 6 times each year because of increased storm surges.) The worry is that saltwater incursion from high tides and storm surges will make the reedbeds uninhabitable for many species, including the bittern.

However, there is some good news. Bittern numbers have increased since a major initiative was launched to safeguard their habitats, and, at a faster rate than was initially hoped for. The RSPB, Natural England and the Wildlfe Trust are joining forces to make new habitats for the bitterns away from the coast. It is hoped that by siting these close to current nesting areas some pairs will move over. They are also trying to make sites which have booming males but no evidence of nesting activity a little more attractive in the hope that the forlorn male will have more chance of attracting Miss Right – more fish maybe.

In addition they are allowing nature to take its course – some sea defences (shingle banks) which were naturally formed have been buggered about with by well intentioned people resulting in a change of profile. This was in the misguided hope of boosting sea defences, but it hasn’t worked, the water has still breached the defences, vegetation hasn’t colonised and the water hasn’t been able to percolate away – bit of a mess really. At last common sense has prevailed and we are learning that nature made something for a reason.

So, fingers crossed for the bittern and its associated friends that live in the reed beds, hopefully we will soon know how many and where they are and give them a chance of survival, if not a sea view.

Polecats are on the march (although I haven’t seen one).

Polecats are the latest mammal to be making a comeback in the UK.  First of all it was otters, now it seems that polecats are increasing in number in the UK.  Is this good news? I think so.

Until I read a recent article in the British Wildlife Magazine I didn’t know anything about polecats (or even realise they existed in the wild), so here are a few things I have learned:

They are native and were reduced to small groups surviving only in Wales, in no small part due to persecution by farmers and gamekeepers.

They are now spreading north and east, although their range appears to be limited by the major conurbations of the north-west and the midlands.

Polecats are relatives of ferrets, and there has been reduction in the purity of the polecate genes by some interbreeding with ferrets.

Polecats are about half a metre long (similar in size to ferrets), they have dark fur, lighter fur on their faces and dark noses (ferrets tend to have pink noses).

Unfortunately the polecats are often killed on the roads.

They manage better in the wild than ferrets as they are good hunters (ferrets were bred to be rubbish at catching their prey) and are thriving on the increased population of rabbits in the wild (currently standing around 45 million).

The good news is that it is thought that they (or possibly the otters) are having an adverse effect on mink which are starting to hunt during the day.  So, in the world of doom and gloom with everything seeming to be labelled a ‘crisis’ it appears there is some good news out there (unless you are a rabbit, frog, ground nesting bird…Oops, I think I am going off them a bit!).

For more information about polecats see the report from the Vincent Wildife Trust or subscribe to the excellent British Wildlife Magazine.